With barely a fortnight left for filing nominations, AIMIM has virtually disappeared from the electoral scene, as the party’s reliance on Abbas Siddiqui to make inroads into Bengal proved futile.

Kolkata: The much-talked-about alliance between the Left Front and the Islamic cleric-turned-politician Abbas Siddiqui’s Indian Secular Front (ISF) has already had one political impact: it has thrown Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) out of the Bengal race.

Soon after the setback Bengal’s ruling party, Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC), suffered in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, Owaisi had announced his party’s plan to enter the Bengal election fray in 2021. The AIMIM’s national leadership and West Bengal organisers said this with all the more gusto after the AIMIM’s success in the 2020 Bihar Assembly elections, in which the AIMIM bagged five seats in districts bordering West Bengal.

Now, elections in the state are to begin in less than a week and there is no news yet of the AIMIM fielding any candidate. The party has not even been formally launched itself in the state, even though it had district-level formations ready.

“I am in hospital right now. I have no news of the party’s plan regarding fielding candidates in Bengal,” AIMIM national spokesperson Asim Waqar said on Wednesday.

Owaisi did not respond to The Wire’s questions, sent to him on WhatsApp, when this report was filed. It will be updated once his response is received.

On March 15, Syed Zamirul Hassan, who had been one of the AIMIM’s principal organisers in the state, quit the party protesting against the national leadership’s indecision over fielding candidates.

“In Bengal, to contest elections, you must have a presence on the ground with flags and wall graffiti. Where are we? We are nowhere on the scene,” Hassan said, announcing his plan to launch his own party.

What prompted the AIMIM to step back is not clear but the party’s organisers in Bengal cite one political development: Abbas Siddiqui, the cleric on whom Owaisi was banking for making inroads in the state, ditched him.

Owaisi had, in fact, said while visiting Siddiqui’s residence that the AIMIM in Bengal would back Siddiqui, stand behind him, and move according to the plan and advice of Siddiqui. In short, AIMIM wanted Siddiqui’s party to lead the alliance.

On March 16, clarifying his position to supporters in a video message posted from his social media account, Hassan said that Owaisi’s visit to Siddiqui’s residence at Furfura Sharif in Hooghly district on January 3 was made without consulting AIMIM’s state-level organisers and “deposited the party with Siddiqui”.

Owaisi’s visit to Siddiqui’s residence came barely two weeks after AIMIM’s Bengal organisers, including Zamirul Hassan, Imran Solanki Syed Dilawar Hussain, Aziszul Hassan and Asadul Sheikh, met Owaisi in Hyderabad and discussed a state plan in the presence of Asim Waqar and former Hyderabad mayor Majid Hussain. During that meeting Hussain was made the new Bengal in-charge of the party, replacing Waqar.

Siddiqui, who has been drawing public attention since 2019 for his scathing speeches targeting Mamata Banerjee’s rule, formally launched his party on January 21, having merged a number of small tribal and Dalit organisations with his platform.

According to a senior leader of the CPI(M), which leads the Left Front, the party expedited its talks with Siddiqui for an alliance soon after Owaisi’s visit to his residence.

“I told him right at the beginning that we were ready to offer him a bigger platform to fight the TMC rule but he will have to snap ties with the AIMIM first. We managed to convince him,” the CPI(M) leader adds.

AIMIM’s Bengal foray

Owaisi’s party has been trying to make inroads in West Bengal since 2014 but with little success. Their enthusiasm increased after the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, from when the party’s Hyderabad-based leadership started giving more time to Bengal. Their Bengal focus increased after the November 2020 Bihar elections.

In November and December 2020, the Bengal organisers twice visited the party’s headquarters in Hyderabad to discuss the Bengal plans. On January 31, the AIMIM appointed Telangana MLA Jaffar Hussain Meraj and MLC Mirza Riyaz Ul Hassan Effendi an in-charge for Kolkata and south Bengal; Bihar MLA Akhtar Ul Imam and Bihar youth wing president Adil Hassan for Murshidabad, Birbhum and Nadia districts; Bihar MLAs Shahnawaz and Md Izhar Asfi for north Bengal districts; and Bihar MLAs Syed Ruknuddin Ahmed and Anzar Nayeemi for the district of Malda.

The poll-preparations were to be finished with the formal launch of the party in the state in February, AIMIM’s Bengal organisers told journalists here.

But all equations changed after the Left managed to convince Siddiqui to join their front and ditch Owaisi. The AIMIM could not stage any protest in Kolkata even after Owaisi’s scheduled public rally in Kolkata in February was cancelled after the administration denied permission. Owaisi criticised the state government in a tweet, but the party has not scheduled any public rally to be addressed by him as of the middle of March.

The state elections are to be conducted in eight phases between March 27 and April 29, and March 31 is the last day for filing nominations.

Despite a series of past statements by Siddiqui revealing fundamentalist and bigoted traits going viral in the social media sphere of West Bengal, the CPI(M) leaders have repeatedly defended their ally as secular.

“Show me one single communal or religious statement he has made since the launch of ISF. He is only talking about the mass issues, about employment, corruption and lack of democratic space,” says CPI(M) politburo member Md. Salim.

Abbas Siddiqui does not want to talk about his deliberations with the AIMIM. “We are fighting the elections as part of the Samyukta Morcha, and I will talk only about the agenda of the Morcha,” he says.

The Samyukta Morcha includes the Left Front, the Congress and the ISF. The Left has given 26 seats to the ISF. The state Assembly has 296 seats.

Mixed reactions

The state’s civil society members and political observers seem to be divided on the impact of Siddiqui ditching Owaisi. Actor and theatre personality Debesh Chattopadhay says the Left-ISF alliance, by throwing the AIMIM out of the race, has spoiled the BJP plan for polarisation to some extent.

“It is not difficult to imagine the communal pitch that the AIMIM-ISF alliance would have had, and it would have definitely aided the BJP in a major way in polarising Hindus on communal lines. However, Siddiqui, under the Left influence, has let go of the religious tone of his past speeches. This has damaged the BJP’s calculations of communal polarisation using the speeches of Muslim leaders,” Chattopadhyay adds.

However, filmmaker Aniket Chattopadhyay disagrees. “Siddiqui seems to have been tutored well (by the Left) to speak only in a democratic language, raising issues concerning people’s daily lives. But, I believe the baggage of past speeches with fundamentalist overtones that he carries is nevertheless helping the BJP in its polarisation plan. Siddiqui has, in fact, got a better platform to serve the AIMIM’s purpose in a better way,” he said.

Human rights activist Ranjit Sur, a vice-president of the state’s largest human rights organisation, the Association for Protection of Human Rights (APDR), says, “The advantage that the BJP would have enjoyed in the case of an AIMIM-ISF alliance rasing mostly the issues of the Muslims has been neutralised by the recent set of developments.”

Siddiqui has toned down and is hardly speaking on issues concerning Muslims alone. “Even though I doubt if the Left would gain much from the alliance with ISF, as the majority of the Muslims seems to have consolidated behind the TMC, the BJP’s seems to have suffered more,” says Sur.

The BJP, however, does not agree with any of these opinions. The party’s state intellectual cell convenor, Rantidev Sengupta, and state unit spokesperson, Samik Bhattacharya, have blamed the Left for “giving a mainstream platform to a fundamentalist for vote-bank politics” and equated the Left-ISF alliance with the Left’s relations with the Muslim League ahead of the partition.

“Are they building the stage for another partition of Bengal?” Sengupta asks.

Muslims formed 27.01% of the state’s population in 2011, and the BJP leaders from their public speeches project the current Muslim population share at 30%. Kailash Vijayvargiya, the party’s Bengal in-charge, has dubbed the Mamata Banerjee government as tees pratishat ki sarkar (a government of the 30%).

The Left’s attempt to strike an alliance with Siddiqui was initially aimed at recovering their Muslim vote bank. The 2019 Lok Sabha elections and the Assembly by-elections held in the same year revealed Muslims had mostly consolidated in favour of the TMC, except in parts of Malda and Murshidabad districts, where the Congress got a section of Muslim voters.